The Customer Might Always Be Right, But the Client Ain’t

May 24, 2018

To pay my way through undergraduate school, I was a produce clerk at a grocery store. I did this for five years. Stacking apples. Stacking boxes. Sniffing cantaloupes. Washing lettuce. Killing deadly insects that crawl on your food before you eat it. Mundane things. Common to every single day at work, other than stacking stuff, was the sign above the clock at the timecard station in the breakroom. “The Customer Is Always Right” it said in Helvetica Bold. Generally speaking, I bought into that saying.


I’ve always looked at work as a fair trade between myself and the person paying me. I give them time or services, they give me an agreed upon price. This is no different if you work at a fast food joint or if you’re the CEO of billion dollar conglomerate. That CEO makes more than us because they agreed to trade their very very valuable knowledge/skills/insight, for a bigger piece of the pie than our much less valuable knowledge/skill/insight. It’s a fair trade that the company and the employee agree upon. Implicit in any such agreement is the idea that we are trading something the other wants or needs. The store needed tomatoes stacked; and I needed money for tuition. The conglomerate wants financial statements analyzed and production velocity increased; and the CEO wants an awesome red Ferrari. Fair trade.

“The Customer Is Always Right” speaks to that trade of value. It represents the company’s recognition of this system of trade with their customers. They are recognizing that customer patronage is contingent upon them providing good products and services. (And as a word of advice- Never do business or work for a company that does not want to have a relationship of an honest trade of value.) And it’s the right underlying attitude if not the right statement in all professional situations.

As professional designers dealing with clients rather than customers, we are often tempted to fall back on that old adage. And when there is some ugly logotype, or crowded ad, or messy website born out of that business relationship, we often excuse ourselves of wrongdoing. We say “The client wanted it that way.” Or “The client was dedicated to purple on that that logotype.” We basically say “The Customer is Always Right.” But this is a cop out. It’s lazy. It is a weak work ethic that results in that weak portfolio piece, that we try to defend with the lazy statement that “The Customer Is Always Right.”

The client is often wrong. This does not mean that they are stupid. It doesn’t mean they are evil. It means that they don’t know your discipline like you do. They don’t know that jagged lines will communicate nervousness or agitation better than curves will. They don’t know that red will communicate lust better than green will to their audience. They might know those things, but they rely on you and your intimate knowledge of design to bring that to their attention. They pay us not merely for a logo, but for the knowledge and confidence that we can bring to bare on a design. We are providing the product (such as a logotype) and the SERVICE of design to our clients.

So it is our duty, if we are to enter into honest trade, to provide the best possible service and product that we can. Anything less is just dishonest. And in so doing, we must be willing and able to tell them when they are wrong. We do this respectfully, tastefully, humbly and compassionately when we do it well. We always value the client and their views. But we simply cannot tell them they are right to choose puke green comic sans on a brochure for Valentines Day that is meant to communicate romance. In so doing, we SERVE the client well. We value them and esteem them much higher than we would if we thoughtlessly surrendered our skills and talents to an adage better suited to the break room, above the time-clock, in a grocery store.

The information and opinions expressed herein represent the independent opinions and ideas of the faculty member and do not represent the opinions and ideas of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh — Online Division.  

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